How AFL umpires are giving back to the community

David Holowko works at his local supermarket, helping to keep stock on the shelves and customers happy. It's a job he has had for a couple of years now, and he loves it. He particularly likes the interaction with the customers and helping them to find what they need. The job also gives him independence and an income - something that sets him apart from so many people with Down syndrome.

On this cold Melbourne Saturday, though, David was on his way with his family to attend the Collingwood-Port Adelaide at the MCG. He wasn't there to watch the game as a fan, however, but to participate in the Fiona McBurney Match Day Experience run by the AFL Umpires.

The program -- a partnership between the AFL, AFL Umpires Association, Down Syndrome Victoria and Apricot Consulting -- commenced in 2007 and ran for two years before it was bought back to life in 2015; it was then named after the sister of retired AFL umpire Stephen McBurney. Fiona McBurney, who had passed away in 2009. She had Down syndrome and loved football, and so naming the program after her made a lot of sense to everyone involved.

The aim of the program initially was simply to provide a person with Down syndrome with the opportunity to spend a day with the umpiring team, but it has evolved into much more. The program has been rolled out to other states with a desire to advocate for employment for people with Down syndrome.

Sue O'Riley, executive officer at Down Syndrome Victoria tells ESPN the organisation hopes the representation of people with Down syndrome in AFL "will give that level of acceptance and credibility where people are thinking, 'oh wow, they are part of this -- I wonder why they are there'. It's a great way of being seen in the community and participating in ordinary life. It also provides participants with an entree into a whole world that very few get to see".

There was some concern among the umpires when the program was introduced, and Stephen McBurney wondered if it "would be a distraction" for the officials in the rooms before the game when sometimes the tension can be high as they prepare for the fixture. But the presence of a person with Down syndrome as part of their support team had the opposite effect, with AFL umpire Chris Donlon, a strong advocate for the program, saying "the atmosphere of the room changes and it has a calming influence on the umpires".

"It also changes the dynamic completely with the players, who usually surround the participant when they visit the team rooms with an umpire prior to the game," Donlon tells ESPN.

Most importantly, the program has an enormous impact on the families of the participants.

Ian and Franne Holowko told ESPN of the pride they felt when they saw their son, David, walk calmly out onto the MCG prior to the Round 14 game between Collingwood and Port Adelaide (and at each quartertime break) to help the umpires with their program. Franne and Ian agreed they were "cheering for the umpires" such was their gratitude for the opportunity their son had being given.

David, a keen Geelong supporter, was very clear what his role was that day. "I have to make sure the umpires have plenty of water and their gels so they can do their job". He was tentative at first but grew into his role as the day progressed, and he strode confidently onto the MCG at quartertime and three-quartertime, with another member of the umpiring team to hand out fluids and help the officials where he could.

Dan Romanis, CEO of Marriott Support Services, explains the importance of programs such as the Fiona McBurney Match Day Experience by saying: "Australia ranks 21 out of 29 countries in a recent OECD report for providing employment to people with a disability. "We need more education of employers about the benefits of hiring people with a disability but it's often hard as people can often only work part time because of their disability."

Sue O'Riley, meanwhile, sees the AFL program as vital in helping to change perceptions of what people with Down syndrome can do. "Changing people's mindset is the biggest part of what we do and a high-profile program like this can only help that," she tells ESPN.

There is also the economic impact of increasing participation by people with a disability in the workforce. According to a Deloitte Access Economics report in 2011, an increased labour force participation for those with a disability, along with the corresponding unemployment rate for those with a disability dropping by just .9 percent, then Australia's gross domestic product would increase by approximately $Aus43 billion over a decade. This is a significant gain for the community but Sue O'Riley points out that it would also "provide people with a disability with a sense of purpose through paid employment".

On this cold winter's day, though, David Holowko was focused only on ensuring the umpires got enough to drink and remembering who wanted gels at each break. At the end of the game, he received an umpire's match day shirt signed by all the officials as well as keeping his AFL cap, shirt and jacket. For him, though, this was more than a feel-good experience. He got a look into the inner sanctum of the umpires' world, and the warmth of all the officials and their acceptance of his presence gave him even more confidence to go out into the world as an equal member of the community

For Franne and Ian, the sight of him moving easily between the umpires at the end of the game was a highlight for them. His work at the local supermarket had increased his confidence, and they agreed the AFL experience could only help him feel even more that he could navigate the world on his own. And that, at the end of the day, is a key plank of this program.

For the umpires, the program gives them the opportunity to give back in a way that is unique. And if only one person watching the game that day changed their mind about hiring someone with Down syndrome then the program will have achieved its aim.